TIFF 2023 | Here (Bas Devos, Belgium) — Wavelengths

By Jordan Cronk

Published in Cinema Scope #94 (Spring 2023).

A film of uncommon warmth and delicacy, Bas Devos’ Here confirms a newfound sense of style and maturity in the Belgian filmmaker’s work that first appeared in the finely tuned nocturne Ghost Tropic (2019). Like that clearly pivotal project, Devos’ fourth feature—which won the top prize in the Encounters section at this year’s Berlinale—finds the 39-year-old director levelling up by scaling down. Gone is the angst and dour social commentary of Violet (2014) and Hellhole (2019), replaced instead with an intimacy borne of a growing interest in the quaint and quotidian. Just as significant, Devos has found a way to channel both the multicultural and generational concerns of his first two films into something far less sweeping and prescriptive. Set over one night, Ghost Tropic follows an elderly Maghrebi cleaning woman on a long walk home through Brussels after she falls asleep on the subway, while Here depicts the unlikely kinship between a Romanian migrant labourer and a Chinese-Belgian bryologist whose fleeting interactions quietly affirm a sense of shared humanity unbeholden to notions of class, vocation, or nationality. 

As Here opens, a group of construction workers are wrapping a day’s work on a building site. Stefan (Stefan Gota) is set to go on leave, and before heading home to see his mother in Romania he plans on spending a few days cleaning out his fridge, cooking, and saying goodbye to friends while his car his being repaired. Over homemade soup, Stefan commiserates with co-workers, acquaintances, and later his sister, a nurse whose job has also kept her away from home for far too long. One night during a rainstorm, Stefan ducks into a small Chinese storefront café where he meets Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a doctoral student working part-time at the restaurant to help out her aunt while she spends the days studying mosses. When Stefan and Shuxiu unexpectedly cross paths again a short time later, in a forest on the outskirts of Brussels, they bond over the beauty and tactility of the earth. With a bare minimum of words exchanged, the two spend the afternoon simply wandering through the rain-dappled woods, accompanied by little more than the sound of rustling leaves, chirping birds, and buzzing insects.

Here is a film of small moments and quietly magical flourishes. In an early scene, Stefan finds a handful of seeds in his pocket, which he shows to a local gardener but decides not to plant. Later, he crawls into some bushes and emerges with a glowing green object in his hands. Neither discovery is returned to or explained. Just as disorienting is the introduction of Shuxiu, long before she meets Stefan at the restaurant. Over a mesmerizing montage of trees and blue skies, she speaks in voiceover about waking up unable to remember the names of things; “The whole room felt like it was part of me,” she says, seeking to convey just a bit of the feeling. Like much of the dialogue, these words reverberate in subsequent scenes of Shuxiu researching, lecturing, and examining plants under a microscope. 

No longer confined to entirely urban or nocturnal backdrops, in Here Devos and his Ghost Tropic cinematographer Grimm Vandekerckhove shoot in 4:3 format, opening upon the natural world as if encountering it for the first time. Even the construction-site scenes breathe with an organic sense of space and the surrounding environment that in Devos’ past work could come off as claustrophobic, if not outright oppressive. As Devos has slowly stepped into the light of day, his vision has grown clearer than ever.

Cinema Scope: How into moss were you before you started making this film?

Bas Devos: I had a very general interest, mostly connected with being outdoors—which probably puts me on par with the rest of world. I grew up in a small village, so I was always outside. It’s an idea that’s sort of explored in the film: it’s hard to become intimate with nature if you don’t know nature. But it was Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World—which is about the most expensive mushroom in the world, the matsutake—that initially sparked my interest. There’s a very specific economy around the matsutake that Tsing links simultaneously to a post-capitalist nightmare and a post-capitalist hope. In the case of this mushroom, she’s speaking about a very specific plant that cannot be grown—you have to find it. It’s a delicacy in Japan. There’s been millions of dollars spent trying to develop a way to grow it, but they’ve been unable to because this mushroom can only grow on damaged or disturbed earth, which puts into motion a whole way of thinking about our presence on this planet and our deep connection with certain plants, like the matsutake.

I don’t know exactly how I got from mushrooms to mosses, but I think somewhere in the book Tsing makes reference to Robin Wall Kimmerer, an American biologist who wrote a very simple book for people who are not scientific, called Gathering Moss. In that book Kimmerer really manages to convey the specificity and importance of moss and our connection with moss in a way that really surprised me, and made me want to go out into the world and look. She speaks very intelligently about this connection and intimacy with the natural world. But because I felt both lacking in knowledge and the right energy to go out and actually do that, I contacted a biologist in Brussels who took me out into the forest. He really made the book come to life: he made me very quickly understand the difference between this small, microscopic world and the world of the higher plants, the ones we enjoy when we walk through a forest. What made me really open my eyes was the idea that in order to understand moss, you need to stop, you need to sit down, you need to bring something in close, and you need to touch—these very sensory experiences. But you also need to be there, not somewhere else. That triggered something in me, which I also think relates to what attracts me—or should attract me—in film, and what often doesn’t. I’m drawn to cinema that shows me a space in which I can move and where I can be attentive, and which demands a certain attentiveness.

Scope: One of the things I like about the film is how different themes and ideas arise and come into focus the further you move through it, as opposed to your prior films, which were more singularly focused.

Devos: I think I felt a need to have a whole array of ideas, and even starting points—one being a simple desire to work with Stefan. I knew I wanted him to be in my film, but why, and how? I also knew I really wanted to film this specific building site that you see in the film. It doesn’t mean anything to people who aren’t from Brussels, but it’s one of the city’s biggest wounds, like one of those tower blocks from the ’70s. It’s being torn down and rebuilt from the same materials, and with that the same problems arise: who’s building it, and who’s going to live there? These aren’t things that are necessarily reflected in the film, but they are the kinds of things that trigger me to make something. So all these things were present in my thinking, while also knowing that I wanted to end up with two people looking at moss. How can I zoom into that moment, into that present?

Scope: Has your writing process changed at all with these last two films? As you say, perhaps they were less preconceived than your earlier films. Is that reflected in how the screenplays took shape?

Devos: People and places triggered the writing. For example, passing by the building site and knowing that I want to film there, or in the park where the story ends up—knowing that I’d like for a scene to take place there, but not knowing what that scene should be about. Eventually it came down to connecting these spaces, thinking about how a film could move from a building site to a swamp. I don’t want to diminish the process, but there is something relatively childlike about the way we went from scene to scene—like, the character is here, and now maybe he can go there, and do that. 

To go back to the books: as you read things, you fill your head with vague, very open ideas, but as you write you begin to make those ideas more concrete. Then it feels very claustrophobic and you need to open it up again. So in that sense there was a kind of movement between a childlike approach to the world of the film, and something more intellectualized.

Scope: Your prior films were also all very urban, whereas this film ventures out into the natural world. Did you want to move away a bit from those urban settings?

Devos: Yes, it’s a transit film. My next movie is going to be out of the city. It was Stefan who brought this movie into the wider world—literally, by inspiring me to make a film about leaving Brussels and going away for a while, but also by allowing me to think, “Where to now?” For a long time this “where to” was part of the film. There were versions that ended up in, like, a restaurant in Germany. The idea of the city in this film is fluid.  

Scope: The title of the film seems to embody this idea. “Here” is both specific and nondescript. 

Devos: For me, the essence of the film is when the two characters meet in this very specific place, for a very specific amount of time, on a sort of damaged piece of land. But at the same time, Stefan’s character is very clearly no longer “here.” He still has stuff to do, like empty the fridge, but his thoughts are elsewhere—they’re already in another place, travelling back in memory but also looking forward to spending time with his mother. I think this says something about how deeply and continuously we as human beings are never really “here.” Our phones alone are constantly taking us elsewhere. Even when you’re in the cinema, you have the whole world in your pocket—and you know it. Even if it doesn’t vibrate, you know it’s there.

So, knowing that I wanted to bring these very 21st-century characters together in a moment of actually being somewhere, and actually seeing each other, seeing the ground, touching things—“here” sort of sums it up. As a word, it’s both spatial and temporal. If you say it, you’re either speaking of something that happened here, in the past, or something happening in the now.

Scope: I’m curious how the diverse cultural makeup of Brussels has influenced your work. If one thing can be said to unite your films, it’s an interest in immigrant or outside cultures.

Devos: If you make a film in Brussels and you don’t address this, you’re not making a film in Brussels. It’s a city made up of minorities. I think other than Dubai, which attracts so many workers and expats, Brussels is probably the most diverse city in the world. Among other things, this has led to a plurality of languages. The first question everyone asks in Brussels is, “Do you understand what I’m saying? Do we speak the same language?” Because of this you often have to negotiate the terms on which you communicate with people.

With regards to Here, my deep wish to make a film with Stefan inevitably brought about thoughts related to labour migration—not as a topic of the film, but as a reality of the city I live in. There are 43,000 Romanians living in Brussels. The Shuxiu character, by contrast, offers a whole different perspective on migration: she was born in Brussels, but Stefan looks more like me than she does. I know it’s a fragile and dangerous thing to broach nowadays, but I wanted it to be a presence in the film because it’s a reality I live in.

Scope: Is there something specific to Shuxiu and her Chinese heritage that you wanted to explore in relation to Stefan?

Devos: I came to the Shuxiu character through the writing process. Stefan was there and clear to me as a starting point, which, among other things, did make me think about the pitfalls of depicting an immigrant construction worker. Liyo’s character could have been, say, Moroccan-Belgian. But the fact that I settled on Chinese opened up a whole other world of language, history, and images of the future. Say what you will, but we will move wherever China moves. As vague as that culture and that future may seem, we have to somehow find a way to relate to it.

Scope: At what point did you settle on this contrast between a construction worker and a scientist?

Devos: In the beginning I imagined the building site would just be a hole in the ground. I was thinking a lot about earth—metaphorically, in the sense of the ground that you live on, the claim to the ground that you live on, and also as something you hold in your hand. But I also started to think about people who deal with this ground in different ways. Don’t ask me to make sense of it, but I know that at some point I had an image in my head of a guy digging in the ground and an image of a woman touching the ground and counting plants, which I just found weirdly interesting as a contrast but also as a connection point. It may be watered down a bit in the final film, but I think this was the root of them meeting. How can somebody be busy in a different way with the idea of being here? What does it mean to say, “This is where I live?” How is that meaningful to me? And then to have somebody interacting with the ground that she walks on, but who sees it in a different light.

Scope: Your two most recent films have a different look and tone than your first two films. Other than working with a different cinematographer, has there been a conscious effort on your part to shift or develop a style apart from those earlier films?

Devos: That’s true, but I think my next film will be different again. Maybe I work in two film cycles. After making Hellhole, which was very complicated—perhaps too complex for a 90-minute film—I felt that I wanted to be able to control the narrative more. Not in a scary way, just in the way of understanding where the story goes, and be able to speak about it in a way that people actually understand what I’m trying to say. While making and promoting Hellhole, I always found myself stuck in how complicated it was, and I sometimes felt I couldn’t entirely grasp what I just made. I could feel it, but I couldn’t articulate it.

Scope: There’s a simplicity to these last two films that is completely refreshing.

Devos: I think I began to clarify in my not-so-clear head that what really interests me is how people connect, how people can meet and sense that there’s something here. Like, I sense the space between us, between our bodies, but I also feel comfortable with that space, and the intimacy that can arise from there, even between strangers. For me, this idea of intimacy has brought on thoughts about narrative and what a narrative should be, and also a growing weariness of narratives that revolve around conflict.

Scope: How did you and Stefan work together to develop his character, and has this process changed at all as your career has progressed? 

Devos: We spent a lot of time talking about the project before even deciding on what kind of character Stefan would play. Eventually we decided that his character would be a Romanian immigrant, like him, and from there we interviewed many immigrant labourers to get a sense of what his character would be. But from the beginning there was a lot of questioning as it pertains to the territory we were navigating—namely, how comfortable do we feel making a film about migrant labour? We definitely felt the danger of these ideas.

It can be hard sometimes when you set out not knowing what kind of film you’re going to make—how can you commit to anything? Luckily, Stefan, being a Romanian immigrant himself, could relate to the character through personal experience, whereas I could empathize with and understand all those things that are left unsaid, the words that are not spoken, that people can’t say. The men we interviewed were so kind in sharing their stories with us, whether they were living in Brussels on their own, temporarily, or staying for a long time and trying to build a life while their families remain abroad. But at the same time that many of them projected a deep openness, there was also a sense of deep impossibility to share what it’s really like to live like this, to tell of the hidden violence or even the hidden beauty of the experience.

Scope: Can you talk about the idea of food as a thematic through line in the film? 

Devos: Well, I’ve since come across a text by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Carrier Bag of Fiction that articulates it better and more beautifully than I ever could. But before I discovered this text, as I began to make the film, I was thinking a lot about what it means to be human—and honestly, what’s more human than to find, collect, store, and then share food? Le Guin’s text deals with narratives, and how narratives often concern conflict and heroes overcoming conflict with the sword. The question she asks instead is: how can we make the idea of gathering food into a valuable narrative? It’s a hard narrative, but it’s an important narrative, one that she argues is more important than the narrative of the hero and the sword that we’ve become accustomed to. I find that idea very beautiful—it resonated deeply with me, because it’s exactly the struggle I’ve been feeling, especially after Violet, where I felt like I did something that I no longer want to do. 

But what is it that I want to do? I think it came down to wanting to make films about people being relatively OK with each other, and making that into something challenging and exciting enough to stand on its own.